In considering the question “How can public historians better promote inclusive, equitable, and accurate representations of the past?”, I argue that a more inclusive and accurate representation will oftentimes be inequitable. As a historian of the Civil War-era, I have been increasingly invested in the Confederate monument controversies as they have unfolded since 2000, and especially during the past several years. The argument can be made that rather than removing and warehousing Confederate monuments, public historians should relocate the monuments to more inclusive and accurate exhibits. This process entails a corrective that rejects balanced treatment for something inequitable.
Some proponents of leaving the monuments in their current locations have suggested adding a plaque to provide a more accurate depiction. But a mere plaque isn’t enough. The Confederate monument controversy might require a more radical approach. Public historians can either redesign a particular monument, adding statues or other memorials that would effectively provide a new interpretation or, better, relocate the Confederate monument to a museum or library and design and include the monument as part of a larger, more accurate exhibit. These exhibits should encourage visitors to question the very legacy of the Confederacy, not idealize it.
In thinking about inclusivity and equitability, there is a danger that revised Confederate Monuments and their interpretations should not promote false equivalencies. The Confederacy is not worthy of commemoration. It never has been. Lost Cause rhetoric as the Civil War ended has emphasized the role of state’s rights as the overwhelming cause for secession, denying that southern states fought a treasonous war against the United States over slavery. Just as a museum exhibit documenting the important history of anti-fascism and anti-fascists e.g. the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and its participation in the Spanish Civil War should not offer equal treatment to Francisco Franco and his fascist forces, Confederate monuments should not glamorize the Confederate past. Confederate heritage IS hate! Confederate monuments left in their places require an accurate interpretation, a corrective that gets as close to the truth as possible—if we can agree that historians can ever tell the truth or that any one truth exists.
In 2000, the South Carolina legislature debated the removal of the Confederate flag from atop the statehouse. The legislature created a law that brought the flag down from the dome but placed it on the statehouse grounds. It took activist Bree Newsome to climb the flagpole and bring the flag down in a remarkable display of courage and resolve. The Confederate flag has long been identified with white supremacists. In the wake of the Dylann Roof massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, images of Roof with a Confederate flag in his left hand a pistol in his right hand surfaced, offering further evidence that the flag has no place in the public domain.
Since the Roof massacre, white Charlestonians have sought ways to improve relations with African Americans in the city. That has forced many whites to reckon with the city’s racist history, particularly the role of chattel slavery. It is no secret that historical tours of the city barely mention that slavery existed, oftentimes reserving a brief reference when passing Ryan’s Slave Mart on Chalmers Street. In reality, Charleston occupied a central position in the transatlantic and internal slave trades.
The Calhoun Monument in Charleston, South Carolina’s Marion Square has always been controversial, especially for African Americans who had long despised Calhoun’s racial animus. It has forced many white Charlestonians to reckon with the city’s history of racial oppression, including slavery.
Many cities across the South have removed Confederate monuments during the past two years, but South Carolina law forbids the removal of flags or memorials to the Confederacy without a two-thirds vote from the state legislature. In August 2017, Mayor John Tecklenburg, who opposes removing Confederate monuments, proposed adding information to the city’s monuments in the wake of the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville. In December 2017, Charleston’s Commission on History proposed wording for a plaque that would be added to the monument. The Charleston City Council voted to defer a decision on the plaque until they had more time to study the issue. Unfortunately, more than a year has passed since the council tabled action on the monument.
Not surprisingly, white and black Charlestonians have interpreted the Calhoun Monument differently. Hiram Powers designed a statue that arrived in November 1850. Calhoun had died earlier that year. But white Charlestonians believed the statue resembled a Roman Senator and not Calhoun the planter. It ended up inside City Hall. The Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association and the Calhoun Monument Association competed to raise funds for a new statue that would be placed in Marion Square. In 1887, the LCMA dedicated a statue sculpted by Albert E. Harnish. That monument failed to meet the interpretive demands of white Charlestonians. Black Charlestonians protested its existence. It was eventually melted down and sold as bronze scrap. In 1896, John Massey Rhind erected the current monument ninety feet above ground to discourage vandals. The statue remains contested terrain.
A reference to Calhoun’s proslavery and secessionist positions are notably absent from the monument. The original statue considers one viewpoint—the pro-Confederate position. But, as the historian Orville Vernon Brown remarked at the Reconstruction Conference in Charleston in March 2018, black South Carolinians fought on the winning side, earning their freedom. But that history was effectively silenced in South Carolina until the modern Civil Rights Movement led to more accurate historical interpretations.
The Charleston’s Commission on History has certainly complied with Tilden’s fourth principle of interpretation: “The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.” The proposed language for a plaque at the Calhoun Monument would certainly irritate white Charlestonians, many of whom would deny that slavery was the inherent cause of the Civil War:
This monument to John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), erected in 1896, was the culmination of efforts begun in 1858 to commemorate his career. It was erected at a time, after Reconstruction, when most white South Carolinians believed in white supremacy, and the state enacted legislation establishing racial segregation. These ideas are now universally condemned.
Calhoun served as Vice-President of the United States under two presidents, as U.S. Secretary of War, as U.S. Secretary of State, as a U.S. Senator from South Carolina and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. A political theorist, he was the author of two important works on the U.S. Constitution and the Federal Government.
A member of the Senate’s “Great Triumvirate,” which included Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Henry Clay of Kentucky, Calhoun championed states’ rights and nullification, the right of an individual state to invalidate a federal law which it viewed as unconstitutional.
Unlike many of the founding fathers, who viewed the enslavement of Africans as “a necessary evil” possibly to be overcome, Calhoun defended the institution of race-based slavery as a “positive good.”
The statue remains standing today as a reminder that many South Carolinians once viewed Calhoun as worthy of memorialization even though his political positions included his support of race-based slavery, an institution repugnant to the core ideas and values of the United States of America.
Historic preservation, to which Charleston is dedicated, includes this monument as a lesson to future generations of the importance of historical context when examining individuals and events in our state’s past.
Tilden wrote that “the purpose of Interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizon of interests and knowledge, and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statements of fact.” The current monument fails to meet Tilden’s standard, but additional language would serve to correct that mistake.
The monument barely offers the perspective of the white supremacists who created the monument as Jim Crow-era segregation and oppression became firmly entrenched in Charleston and throughout the South. In fact, white southerners created monuments as symbols of white supremacy. It is critically important that visitors to the monument understand the larger historical context. The Commission on History would do well to add language that addresses that history.
The Charleston City Council should vote to add a plaque to the Calhoun Monument in Marion Square. It will prove an important step in improving race relations between white and black Charlestonians. Moreover, tourists would benefit from a more accurate interpretation of the legacy of John C. Calhoun in United States history.
Jeff Strickland is an Associate Professor of History and the Department Chair at Montclair State University. He holds a PhD in History from Florida State University and is the author of Unequal Freedoms: Ethnicity, Race, and White Supremacy in Civil War Era Charleston (University Press of Florida, 2015). He has written numerous journal articles and book chapters about the American Civil War and the history of Charleston, South Carolina.
 See Chapter 3: “Setting Jim Crow in Stone” in Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of Confederacy (The New Press, 2018). Thomas J. Brown, The Monumental Legacy of Calhoun” in Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
 Charleston Commission on History, Calhoun Dec. 6, 2017 revision, in City Council Minutes, January 9, 2018. https://www.charleston-sc.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_01092018-3447